Europe opens a window onto a violent Universe
17 October 2002, Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
On 17 October 2002, the
European Space Agency launched a new observatory set to revolutionize
the branch of astrophysics that seeks to unravel the secrets of the highest-energy,
and therefore the most violent, phenomena in the Universe. This comes
20 years after the end of ESA's COS-B mission, which produced a complete
map of the sky in the high-energy gamma-ray waveband.
As part of ESA's cooperation with Russia, a Russian Proton launcher was
chosen to place the Integral (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory)
observatory in orbit. The launcher lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan
today at 10:41 local time. After re-ignition of its upper stage,
it placed Integral in its 72-hour elliptical orbit, ranging from only 10000
km up to 153000 km from the Earth, i.e. nearly half the distance to the Moon.
Controlled by ESA's ESOC mission operations center in Darmstadt in Germany,
the satellite will now undergo a two-months test period intended first to
verify that the instruments onboard are working correctly and then that the
data they collect is of good quality.
Integral was developed by Italy's
Alenia Spazio supported by over 30 firms in Europe. The satellite
(with a mass of 4000 kg, and a height 5 meters) has two main instruments: the SPI spectrometer and
Developed by a Franco-German-led team, the SPI spectrometer will conduct a spectral
analysis of isolated sources and of regions of gamma-ray activity with unprecedented
energy resolution (40 times better than previous satellites), using germanium
detectors cooled to 85 K. Since mirrors and lenses are of no use in detecting
gamma rays, the SPI uses the "coded-mask imaging" technique to form its images
from very faint radiation. These images are then decoded by computer.
The IBIS imager, designed by an Italian-led team, is the perfect partner for SPI.
It has a weaker energy resolution, but an angular resolution 12 times sharper
thanks to a coded mask optimized for the purpose and two new-generation detector
To supplement the observations by SPI and IBIS, Integral also carries a Danish
X-ray imager (JEM-X), with twin detectors each fitted with coded masks, and
a Spanish CCD imager (OMC) operating in the visible spectrum waveband.
By combining the data collected by these four instruments, it will be possible,
for the first time, to make simultaneous observations of high-energy phenomena
at seven orders of magnitude, from visible light to gamma rays. All the raw
data collected by Integral will be sent directly to the ground via the ESA
station at Redu in Belgium, or the station operated by NASA, another partner
in the program, at Goldstone in the USA. The raw data will be centralized
at ESOC in order to be processed and redistributed to the scientific community
via the Integral Scientific Data Centre (ISDC) at Versoix in Switzerland.
|Artist's impression of the Integral spacecraft|
Integral's four instruments provide, for the first time, simultaneous observations with the same satellite at visible, X-ray and gamma-ray wavelengths for some of the most energetic objects in the Universe.
Operating in an orbit that enables it to spend most of its time outside the
Van Allen radiation belts, which can hamper observation of cosmic gamma rays,
Integral will primarily study the densest sky objects, such as neutron stars
and black holes, which are all sources of very high energy radiation. While
IBIS will supply very detailed images of these sources, SPI will conduct
the first in-depth analysis of this gamma radiation. Integral's observations
should enable astrophysicists to confirm the presence of giant black holes
at the center of galaxies, starting with the Milky Way.
Other areas of interest for the European gamma-ray observatory will include
events of rare violence such as nova and supernova explosions. These will
be explored with precision thanks to the gamma radiation given off by the
radioactive isotopes emitted. Integral will also be a unique means for observing
gamma bursts, these still largely unexplained explosions at the outer reaches
of the Universe, which for the first time can be studied in parallel along
a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Integral is the second medium-size mission carried out under the Horizon
2000 program, following the Huygens probe, whose destination is Saturn
and its moon Titan; the third will be the Planck observatory, which will
study the background noise of the Universe, as from 2007. The Integral mission
should last at least two years.
Read more about Integral's launch. (http://www.esa.int/export/esaMI/Integral/index.html)
Read more about Integral. (http://sci.esa.int/integral/)
Integral Scientific Data Centre. (http://obswww.unige.ch/isdc/Outreach/Welcome.html)